The Nuance of Tom Hanks:
From his earlier work as an overgrown child (Big) and romantic leading man (You’ve Got Mail), to Oscar winning turns as an AIDS-stricken lawyer (Philadelphia) and accidental historical figure (Forrest Gump), to his more recent performances as Walt Disney (Saving Mr. Banks) and miracle pilot Sully Sullenberger (Sully), Tom Hanks has been an indelible presence in popular culture.
A fixture on our screens for almost four decades, this longevity has garnered Hanks the trust of moviegoers around the world. Reader’s Digest declared Hanks the “Most Trusted Person in America.” He has even been awarded the similar titles of “America’s Dad” and “The Nicest Guy in Hollywood.”
While the length of his career has helped build this trust, the roles he’s played have also managed to endear him to audiences. It is safe to say that Hanks has an affinity for playing real people. From astronaut Jim Lovell (Apollo 13) to seafarer Richard Phillips (Captain Phillips), or more recently newsman Ben Bradlee (The Post), Hanks revels in the stories of those “every day” heroes, men who surmounted impossible odds for a greater good. In playing these roles, Hanks conveys the idea that, despite his movie star status, he understands the “common man.” He sees our struggles. He cares.
Hanks will continue this tradition in his upcoming movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood in which he plays Mr. Fred Rogers, the sweater-clad avuncular host of the PBS touchstone Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Through his teachings of love and kindness, Mr. Rogers built his own special bond with audiences, leading many to view Hanks as the perfect choice for the role.
“[I wanted] Tom Hanks to become less Tom Hanks…” — Marielle Heller
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly, Marielle Heller, director of A Beautiful Day, discussed her vision for the film including her vision for Hanks’ performance stating, “Fred [Rogers] sat in silence and stillness in a way I don’t think Tom naturally does…[I wanted] Tom Hanks to become less Tom Hanks…to let discomfort and painful things sit. This will feel very different from how you’ve seen him before.”
This statement from Heller, highlights an interesting aspect of Hanks’ public perception.
In this same Entertainment Weekly feature, it’s noted that, “Heller worked with Hanks to rein in the star’s ‘boisterous’ charms….” By this point in audiences’ relationship with Hanks, it is understood what is meant by this statement — Hanks often seen to be gregarious with an open face, wide gestures, and his loud recognizable laugh/shout — in other words the human embodiment of Woody from the Toy Story saga; Tom Hanks’ performances conflated with Tom Hanks the man.
It is true that, just as James Stewart mastered the “aw-shucks” persona, Hanks has made an art of the loud energetic delivery. Witnessed outside of Toy Story in films like A League of Their Own (“There’s no crying in baseball!”), Catch Me If You Can, and most recently The Post, Hanks’ singular shouts of disbelief and frustration and joy have been heard/seen by audiences for years. Recall the famous bathtub scene from Money Pit and that donkey kick of a laugh.
It is this characteristic, along with his good-natured public image, that audiences, and it seems Heller, have come to expect in a quintessentially “Hanksian” role. Yet, this assumption does Hanks a great disservice. For amidst these “boisterous” displays, Hanks has provided truly nuanced performances, the shadow and the light, in characters both silent and still.
A key example of this can be seen in 2002’s Road to Perdition, a showcase in Hanks’ skill in residing comfortably within silent spaces. Michael Sullivan, a mobster and father on the run with his son, may be Hanks’ quietest role to date. Although Sullivan experiences an incredible loss early in the film, Hanks does not resort to shouting or gasping sobs, instead keeping that pain inside, a weight which he bears for the remainder of the movie, and only visible behind his eyes. Throughout the film, he rarely raises his voice above a low monotone, no trace of Sheriff Woody or his Hanksian guffaw. Even acts of violence are committed in silence.
Another instance of Hanks’ talent with stillness is evident in his Oscar-winning performance in Philadelphia. Amidst the grander or more “operatic” scenes, Hanks provides wonderful moments of quiet. One such instance occurs after his character, Andrew Beckett, is denied representation by his last hope, lawyer Joe Miller, played by Denzel Washington. In a thirty second scene, Hanks stands on the street, in close-up, as his character grapples with his present situation. In this moment, we witness his character transition from dejection to determination, all without a single word spoken; Hanks’ emotiveness in this scene worthy of a Buster Keaton film.
In one of his recent collaborations with director Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies, Hanks plays James B. Donovan, an American lawyer sent to negotiate a hostage exchange with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Unlike the examples mentioned prior, Hanks is able to imbue this rather reserved character with a sense of levity, yet always exhibits great restraint. His laughter and wide smile are reduced to head down smirks and grins. His voice maintains a steady timbre throughout that expresses the character’s certainty and conviction.
In the final scene of the film, Hanks once again utilizes his aptitude for quiet. We sit with him on a train, his changing expressions inviting us to contemplate the impact of his honorable deeds not just upon the world, but upon the man himself. A slight frown and deadening stare the only things needed to grasp the weight of his experiences.
While the examples given are from some of his “bigger” or more successful films, an example that really portrays the dichotomy between audience expectations and the true nuance of a Hanks performance can be seen in the 2016 film A Hologram for the King. Although this is not among his best films, Tom’s portrayal of struggling salesman Alan Clay contains exemplary moments of Hanks’ ability to occupy those silent spaces.
As a man in need of a win (he’s lost his home, his job is in jeopardy, his family relationship is strained, and his health is suffering) the character Alan Clay is…sad. Alone in an unknown landscape (Saudi Arabia), Hanks conveys this sadness within solitary moments — hunched on a hotel bed, sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting in a lobby, etc. the heaviness he’s carrying visible in his body and across the lines of his brow. Yet, we witness this sadness buried beneath a cheerful, one could say, “boisterous” persona.
In a scene, we watch as Clay pauses before entering a room. In this breath, his sullen demeanor transforms. His grimace turns into a grin, his head tilts higher, and his shoulders pull back. He is a picture of confidence. As he marches in to greet his coworkers, they and the audience, see no trace of the sadness that pervaded moments prior; instead they/we are confronted by the Hanks we know, the Hanks we expect — open face, kind eyes, and that throat-full Hanksian laugh.
This is a subversive moment, a possible wink on Hanks’ and the director, Tom Tykwer’s, part toward the audience. Hanks knows how we see him. He knows what we expect, so like Alan Clay he does his job. He turns on the charm because it works, because we want it to work.
Like the characters he’s portrayed, Hanks is a man placed in an extraordinary situation and capable of many things including the light and the dark.
Through these examples and many other performances not mentioned (i.e. Saving Private Ryan or The Terminal), it is apparent that Hanks is more than just an affable cowboy or our movie star father figure. So, maybe Heller was wrong. Maybe Tom Hanks doesn’t need to be “less Tom Hanks.” Maybe audiences just need to expand their horizons and realize that Tom Hanks “being” Tom Hanks is a lesson in nuance. Like the characters he’s portrayed, Hanks is a man placed in an extraordinary situation and capable of many things including the light and the dark.
So, when heading to the theater to see A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood expect to see Tom Hanks being Tom Hanks: a talented actor, a purveyor of story, and a man right at home in those still and silent places.